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A Haunting in Mitla

“How was it? What’d you see?” I asked, accosting him in the murky, cramped passage. 

“It’s…I’ll let you look for yourself,” he replied, panting, “just keep in mind it’s really dark in there.” The corridor and stairs were so narrow, the two of us could barely sidle past one another. I was already claustrophobic from the musty rooms above ground. Now, in the crypt I could scarcely breathe; my eyes detected shadows in the gloom. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to observe in the chamber: its occupant and his accoutrements had long been excavated. Just an empty space. I hastened out into the sunlight.

“So…d’you see him?” Mark leaned in to whisper. He was one of the members of our guided group at Mitla. We’d briefly bonded over our camera lens preferences.

“See…who?”

“The…y’know…ghost.

I laughed. “What?”

“Look…I’m not…y’know one o’ those supernatural nuts, but…you didn’t…I mean you had to have seen the guy in there…right?”

“Uh…it’s an empty tomb, Mark.”

“Right…no…right, yea….”

The back of my neck prickled. “You thought you saw someone in there?”

“You didn’t?”

Our guide summoned us for a lecture so we hurried off, but I was distracted. I don’t believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, this ancient ruin could be teeming with them. Mitla, a nahuatl word meaning “Place of the Dead,” may refer to the annihilation of this city by the Aztecs. Even prior to its conquest, constant skirmishes between Mixtecs and Zapotecs left the ceremonial center ravaged. Our docent, James, explained all this carnage to us in precise numbers and calendar dates. I, however, kept wondering about the phantom. Had Mark been hallucinating, or playing a joke on me, or had he mistaken another visitor? A part of me began to speculate whether I had felt the semblance of a presence from long ago.

What makes historical sights come alive for me are details — the uncovered relics, the disinterred murals, the archaeological detritus. I enjoy incorporating these discoveries into imagining how a culture once lived. But, too often the evidence is austere and unrevealing. Though crucial for authenticating what happened in the past, it doesn’t impact my emotions, doesn’t plummet me into a narrative. 

Perhaps that’s the reason ghost sightings have remained popular through the centuries, finding new avenues in our digital world. The haunting account of a single soul determined not to be forgotten captures our imagination. Whether it’s a tragic love story or a horror recounted, apparitions involve us with history much more forcefully than artifacts. They remind us that the past is never really gone.      

Our chaperoned presentation ends. We’re allowed to roam Mitla on our own. Mark and I return to the burial chamber. It’s silent and vacant. We pop into a couple of other rooms hoping to catch the specter, but he’s elusive. There’s only the faint whistling of wind, the tingling of hair on my lower arms, the shuffle of our footsteps. Then, as we’re exiting the doorway of the last priestly accommodation, we both hesitate, turn back, peer into the grayness. Is it a ghost, is it the shape of our fears, or is it Mitla shifting under the weight of history?


TRAVEL NOTE:

Mitla’s most striking feature is its architectural geometry. Intricate friezes are carved into the sides and interiors of temples and living quarters. Archaeologists are beginning to uncover the cultural significance behind some of the fretwork patterns depicting the Zapotec life cycle, thunder, and maize.


Have a ghost story? I’d love to hear your favorite spooky tales below in the comments!

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109 replies »

  1. I love getting an insight into your thought process as you explore new places – it’s interesting because I too like to imagine how cultures once lived! Gorgeous photos as usual!

  2. Your photos are so enticing… We call them “ghosts” but I think perhaps that’s just our label for spirits which are everywhere I believe. Especially since living in Asia where pretty much everyone believes in spirits. In Vietnam for example, every single home and restaurant has a personal shrine to deceased family members who are spoken to each day. In Bali in Indonesia offerings are put out daily for the spirits – to attract good ones and good karma and ward off evil. It can’t all be meaningless…

    Peta

    • Thank you Peta! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. In Mexico as well, spirits are a part of ancestral lore and family stories. Locals here are far more integrated into the tapestry of ghost narratives than I can ever be and I find this a wonderfully intriguing part of their philosophy.

    • I’m tempted to go….thinking about it….and that is a good nudge, sounds interesting. Of course I’m aware of Day of the Dead, but I’m sure if you’re there in Mexico and hear about it from local sources, it will have a much deeper meaning.

      • Speaking of the Day of the Dead…before exploring Mexico I’d had the idea that it was some sort of macabre festival, but for most locals here it is a time to gather with family and reminisce about loved ones, honor their forebears, as well as tell ancestral stories. Though, Mexico City does have an impressive parade for the holiday!

  3. It’s a fascinating story and very thought provoking. If it would be O’K for me to meet certain ghosts, I would feel fine. Otherwise it’s spooky. I went on a guided tour of Pushkin museum in Saint Petersburg and our guide told us that a coffin with a body of the poet was kept in a small room for people to bid their last farewell to him. He was mortally wounded during a duel and died. According to our guide visitors often faint in the room, where the coffin was displayed. However I felt fine. Another time we walked around an old cemetery next to San Miniato basilica in Florence and I wanted to get out of the cemetary ASAP. Old Irish cemetaries looks pretty friendly to me. Maybe it’s because Irishmen are famous for their sence of humor?

    • How wonderful that you enjoyed my post and related some spooky encounters of your own! I believe so much of that eerie feeling we get has to do with atmosphere more than location. I’ve never been to an Irish cemetery but you’ve got e wondering if Irish humor does lend to friendlier graveyards. 😁

  4. Great post! I have photographed in a few places that were supposedly haunted. The scariest was an abandoned Pennsylvania state hospital for the feeble-minded and epileptic. The guides told stories of encounters. Even though I was open to an experience and alone in certain areas it was uneventful.

  5. Mexico and Central America are definitively the places to be if you want to do some ghost hunting. We’ve got once also a ghost experience over there and my wife freaked almost out till I said; “come on, it’s just a specter of a human without body and you’re a human specter with a body”.

  6. Living in Indonesia means I grew up hearing ghost stories from a lot of people. I can’t see them, and I don’t think I want to see them. However, sometimes I do wonder if the ‘ghosts’ some people saw were actually just in their imagination. Still, I don’t want to find out.

    • I find the stories so fascinating in regards to how they’re similar across cultures and how they’re different. But, I have to agree with you — while exciting to listen to, I don’t think I’d actually like meeting any ‘ghosts.’ 😱

  7. You had the hair on my neck standing up with your suspenseful narrative. Ghosts or not, there is an ethereal quality about some of your photos (4th and 5th ones especially…the clouds and powerful architectural structure). Mexico continues to amaze me. I had not heard of Mitla before your post. Thanks for the introduction.

    • I’m so thrilled to hear that both my story and photos creating such an atmosphere for you! Thank you. Mexico continues to enthrall me as well, there’s so much to discover in terms of philosophy and culture, and I’m only scratching the surface.

  8. Very interesting perspective on why ghosts are important to us and a very atmospheric post that kept me on the edge of my seat! I’ve never seen a ghost but I have twice done an overnight ghost hunt at our local castle – one time I was walking down some steps into a small room and had an overwhelming feeling of dread, so I had to stop – later someone felt physically ill in that room…so perhaps I’ve felt a ghost, if not seen one 🙂

  9. It’s interesting how the occupying Spaniards always made a point of superimposing one of their churches atop a holy place of the cultures that they subjugated. I know it happened with pagan temples in Europe too, but seeing here, in ‘the flesh’, so to speak, is quite intriguing.

    • It is interesting isn’t it? I see it repeatedly throughout Mexico. But, I need to take more note of this in Europe! I guess it’s the best way of stamping authority over an indigenous culture, since nothing says superiority than tearing down another religion’s sanctuary and using its stonework for your own place of worship.

  10. Wow! A beautiful atmospheric post about Mitla. The beginning reads like fiction, pulling me straight into the story. I felt claustrophobic as you were in the chamber … then shivered on learning about the possible ghost. Your reflections for the increase sightings of these in our modern world are interesting. I agree the details at these kind of sights bring them alive … last weekend I visited The Roman Baths in Bath and they were fabulous. The exhibits were incredible, interwoven how they would have looked in their settings, feeling as we were walking outside the temple square. A scribbled lead ‘paper’ with wishes to the gods revealed how ‘ordinary’ the people were and not so dissimilar to us nowadays. A joy to read about your visit to Mitla!

    • Thank you Annika, for your insightful critique. I so appreciate it! Your exploration of the Roman ruins at Bath sounds exactly like something I would greatly enjoy, especially as it seems they have done some interesting interactive displays.

  11. I’d never heard of Mitla before, so thank you for introducing this fascinating place (architecture, ruins, history and atmosphere) to me. I prefer the sunshine to the cool, dark interior of the tombs or chambers, but would still venture in to see what I would encounter or feel. A part of traveling is to expand our horizons and wouldn’t it be cool to see or feel a real ghost, if that is at all possible? 🙂

  12. Well, Mexico has been famous, for ages not only because it’s surrealism, but because day of the Death, and the rich legends of “Aparecidos” (goshts stories) specially in the old days before TV when people will seat and talk unlike today, I listen as a child, to countless stories, from the old people in the family, where the death live within the living, or we the living live within the death, that would give you nightmares, however check this link to give you a better idea. 🙂

    https://www.fusionmagazine.org/mexico-a-surrealist-country/

  13. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I’m too rational for that. But, put me in a dark room, near a cemetery, and I’m sure my mind will start playing tricks. 🙂 I think, it’s one of those things we’re taught to fear as kids. The fear of the unknown and afterlife. The horror movies, stories told by parents or friends, and our own imagination can add so many dimensions to a situation or place. It would be interesting if the guide wasn’t joking. 🙂

    • Ghost stories have been a part of the human culture for so long. I find these narratives to be fascinating insights into the various ways we think about death, loss, regret, and spirituality. Sadly, the guide at Mitla was not joking about the violence the city suffered, but I imagine that’s no different than many ancient places that have witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations.

      • I know what you mean. Travel can be such a fantastic way to learn about where ‘we’ (as humans) got it wrong. We can only learn from the past and hope to leave a better place for the next gen.

  14. Seems like folks see and believe what they expect or want to see, even if it isn’t there or if there’s something else there. Just the same, my wife will swear up and down she saw ghost in a coffee house a few years back – and who am I to argue with my wife?

  15. I don’t usually ‘believe’ in ghosts, but I do remember once staying in a strange, old house in Germany with my family when I was a teenager. We were all of us unaccountably uncomfortable there, and my sister and I both thought we had sensed an unhappy presence on the landing near the bedroom where we were sleeping. I’ve never felt that sense of ‘presence’ before or since.
    By the way, I had never heard of Mitla before I read your posts. Your photographs are gorgeous. It looks amazing. xo

    • I’m so happy I could introduce Mitla to you! It’s not as famous as some of the larger archeological sites in Mexico, but very picturesque, especially with all that gorgeous fretwork. Thanks for relaying your “ghostly” experience; I too have had that uncomfortable feeling in old houses.

  16. Great photos! I sometimes forget that places like this exist in Mexico and that the country has such history – it’s not all tourist beaches and drug gangs.

    • Hahaha…so much of the coast has sadly become tourist resorts. I’m hoping regions like Oaxaca continue to work hard to maintain the balance between welcoming outsiders like myself and being good stewards of their heritage.

  17. I admired one of these photos on Instagram today; they are all so full of photographic (and real life) depth. I’m one of those “sensible” types who doesn’t believe in ghosts, but places like this can certainly give me a tingle of … something! The history, often the darkness, the cool stone contrast with a hot sunny day – they all sometimes combine for a frisson of fear, doubt, or mystery. And who’s to say that’s not what a ghost is?!

    • EXACTLY. I so agree with you. I don’t believe in them either, but who’s to say? I love that you mentioned that contrast between the cold interiors and the hot sunny day which really does make for a tingly experience.

  18. Magnificent photos and story! My husband and I have had a couple of eerie experiences too and we haven’t been 100% sure either that what we witnessed was a “real” paranormal event. But what does it matter? If it makes you even more curious to learn about the history — and makes the trip more memorable too — it’s all good. Great post!

      • Our experiences were while traveling, thankfully — because I don’t think I could live in a haunted house. The first was just an overwhelming sense of dread that overtook us both as we walked through an alley in Edinburgh. We blamed it at the time on the dark, cramped space — but many years later we learned in a History Channel program that this was one of the “closes” where plague victims were walled in to die during the Middle Ages. But the REALLY eerie encounter happened in Sedona, Arizona, when we were hiking through a narrow canyon. We heard tires on gravel coming up behind us on the road, as if a car was following us slowly, but saw nothing when we looked over our shoulders. Over the next minute or two the sound kept coming closer and closer, but still nothing. And then it passed us! It sounded like someone had driven right past us — except we were the only ones on the road. My husband is a born skeptic but even he was freaked out a bit. After much discussion we theorized that we’d heard an echo of a car driving above us, near the edge of the canyon … but that doesn’t explain the weird feeling we both had as it happened, like static electricity. I’m glad my husband was there both times to corroborate because otherwise I might have thought my imagination was playing tricks on me.

      • What fantastic stories, though of course at the time you and your husband didn’t feel that way! I’ve had that sense of dread while in certain old houses, but never thought to ascribe it to ghosts. I suppose, since I’m a nonbeliever, I always think it’s my too-active imagination. Thanks for letting me in on your spooky adventures!

  19. Those geometric stepped-fret designs are amazing, makes me want to paint something like that, it’s mesmerizing.One could only imagine what it was like back then. It would have been interesting to “talk to the ghost”.

    • “It would have been interesting to “talk to the ghost”.” I know! If only I were more of a ghost whisperer. As for the fretwork — isn’t it stunning! You would love also the massive work done on the inside of the chambers as well.

  20. I don’t believe in ghosts per say, but I do believe that the energy of departed souls do linger in this world once their bodies have ceased to function, and at times, we can feel that energy.

    Great photos by the way, the scenery would have been enough, but the buildings were very interesting as well. Thanks for the tour!

  21. I don’t know if I really believe in ghosts or not, but my feeling is that I won’t run into one on a group tour. Sometimes when I’ve been at an archeological site and there are very few people around or when I linger a bit longer and touch a wall, I think I feel something, perhaps a connection with past life.

    • I agree! One of the reasons when I’m on a guided tour, I always like to have some time to run off on my own to wherever there aren’t any crowds. That’s usually when I “feel” the place come alive for me.

  22. Again, a great introduction and spectacular photos … you really set the scene and went on to capture the spirit of Mitla. You had me hooked right from the first few words.
    Takes you right to the heart of the place. Love the sombre mood of the internal photo, also the starkness of the exterior shots. You spiced it up with the spectre of ghosts from the past and remind us there has been so much violence, tragedy throughout the history of this region. Yet there has also been such advanced thinking … the association with the heavens, the universe … as well as of the land itself.

    • Thank you. Mexico’s pre-Columbian history is truly complex, there is an equal amount of violence and beauty in it. One of the things I took away from my explorations at Mitla was the incredible artistry that was present at the time of the Zapotec and Mixtec reigns. From the fretwork at the ruins to the excavated pottery and jewelry, the creative output was marvelous.

  23. Because you couldn’t see the spirit doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. I cannot see England from Virginia, but I know it is there. Plus many people have the sight to see the spirits of the after-life. Nowadays with the refined cameras available, they are even caught in photos. Believe.

  24. I have to admit that the hair on my neck stood up slightly when visualizing myself in this chamber. Like you, I do not believe in ghosts (except for those conjured by Charles Dickens!), but I think our imagination is impressionable, and darkness revives ancient fears.
    But who knows? There are phenomena that defy logic, and I am keeping an open mind.

  25. What a fascinating structure and those hovering clouds…it definitely looks suspenseful! How timely with Day of the Dead celebration approaching, a time where we convivir with ancestors so as not to forget them.

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